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GLOBAL NEWS | spring 2008

Tragic Epidemic
In Senegal, unsafe abortions remain rampant

WHEN ADAMA TALL, A 29- year-old woman working as a maid in Dakar, told her boyfriendshe was pregnant,he allegedly threatened to beat her and forced her to take pills and a drink concocted from green powder. Hours later, in severe pain, she delivered a fetus—she doesn’t know if it was alive—which he took away, saying he would bury it. When she fell unconscious the next day, Tall’s mother brought her to the hospital. There she remained until well enough to be transferred to jail—charged with infanticide. After four years’ detention in prison, she was found guilty of abortion—which carries a maximum penalty of two years—and was then released.

In Senegal, abortion is illegal except to save a woman’s life. But doctors, midwives and traditional healers perform abortions, as do affected women themselves“You can’t imagine the number of abortions that take place in Dakar,” says one ob-gynwho performs the procedures on nights and weekends. “Every day, dozens upon dozens.” He has a private practice and charges the equivalent of $375, in a country where a servant’s monthly salary is roughly $36.

For the poor, the procedure usually entails dangerous do-it-yourself experiments. Women drink teas of boiled coins, seek injections of drugs such as acetate and oxytocin, and prepare cocktails of neem leaves and malaria drugs. The World Health Organization estimates 30,000 women die in Africa each year from unsafe abortion. In Dakar, word on the street is that surgical abortion can kill you, and the link between abortion and fatality defines Senegal’s reproductive reality.

Those so poor and socially isolated they cannot or will not access the underground- abortion loop sometimes hide their pregnancies and kill the newborns. Recently, a single mother of five said she had been raped and hid her pregnancy for shame. When she had a stillbirth, she buried it in a neighborhood cemetery. Her brother called the police, and she is currently in jail awaiting trial for infanticide.

Infanticide occupies a prominent place in public consciousness, serving as a projection of society’s confusion about abortion. Women who are accused of committing infanticide routinely make headlines; courtrooms are packed for such trials. Meanwhile, on any given day, news of a baby’s corpse found in a local dumpster travels through Dakar’s poorest neighborhoods.

In 2006, dozens of women were arrested for infanticide (which also includes abortion after 180 days of pregnancy). But only 23 cases were deemed solid enough to warrant a criminal court trial. The women were jailed, serving four years’ detention on average, awaiting trial at a special session for serious crimes held only once or twice a year.

This deplorable situation persists, although in November 2005 the African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa went into effect. In Senegal, as in the other 14 signatory countries, women were guaranteed the right to legal abortion for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to overstate the gap between international charters and the reality on the ground in Dakar. Many people in Senegal haven’t even heard of the Protocol, and Senegalese law is still, as it has been for years, “catching up.”

In the meantime, the nightmare epidemic of unsafe abortion persists.